Michael Bierut starts the book by saying that he is a designer and not a writer. Yet each short essay, about two pages on average, is so well-written that it doesn’t feel like writing at all; rather a conversation that you are having with your college design professor. This may have something to do with the fact that most of the essays are taken from a blog, a medium that is popularized by the casual way it communicates with its audience. Sixty-eight of the 79 articles are from the Design Observer blog. It’s one of the leading blogs on design as well as one of the best designed I have read.
This is the kind of book you keep on your coffee table and pick up for short 15 minute reads while you’re waiting for your teapot to boil or killing some time before you head out for the night. However, I found myself carrying the book all over. I read it on the subway, while waiting for friends at a cafe and bulldozing through half a dozen essays before bed. Each composition offered something completely different, but they all hold together with one underlining theme; you guessed it—design. Most design books tend to focus on the technical or critical aspects, but Michael’s (and I feel I can refer to him on a first-name basis after reading the book) 79 Short Essays have a tendency to talk about design without ever really touching the subject. Musings about running on a tread mill, an autobiography by a playwright or the life of a blues musician all seem to speak more about the design process than, say, Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style.
Some of the more memorable discourses for me were the essays where Michael talks about his own interactions with clients and design problems while working as a designer, such as “The Road to Hell: Now Paved with Innovation.” He is remarkably candid about his own doubts, imperfections and even narcissism. As a designer we are often expected to know the perfect solution to a particular problem and that can be a lot to carry sometimes. So it’s nice to see that even such an accomplished designer such as Mr. Beirut faces the same problems as myself and continues to learn and better himself in his professional career. It’s inspiring really.
Of course the design of the book is fantastic. One minor issue I had was that each essay is composed with a different typeface. I get as excited about typography as much as any other designer, and it was fun trying to guess the font of each essay, but I felt it was unwarranted and a little distracting. Other than that, the attractive and simply executed, bright yellow cover (designed by Abbott Miller), the well structured layout and the super heavy text weight stock (or is that a cover weight) all support the equally accomplished writing. Unfortunately, I hauled the book with me everywhere I went for a month and the cover became heavily worn. It is such a beautifully crafted book I plan on buying another copy to keep in pristine condition on the shelf while I re-read the former at my own pace.